James Joyce - World Literature

World Literature

James Joyce


BORN: 1882, Dublin, Ireland

DIED: 1941, Zurich, Switzerland


GENRE: Fiction, poetry, drama


Dubliners (1914)

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

Ulysses (1922)

Finnegans Wake (1939)



James Joyce. Joyce, James, photograph. The Library of Congress.



James Joyce is considered the most prominent Englishspeaking literary figure of the first half of the twentieth century. His short-story collection and three novels redefined the form of modern fiction and have inspired countless writers in his wake.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

One Child among Many in Dublin, an Irish Exile in Paris. James Augustus Aloysius Joyce was born on February 2, 1882, in Dublin, Ireland, to John Stanislaus Joyce and Mary Jane Murray Joyce. He was the eldest of what his father estimated as ‘‘sixteen or seventeen children,’’ only ten of whom survived infancy.

After graduating from University College Dublin in 1902, Joyce left Ireland for medical school in Paris. He viewed the flourishing Irish literary revival with a mixture of anxiety and indifference. Both the strong nationalism, with its emphasis on the revived Gaelic language, and the accompanying mysticism were unacceptable to him. Unlike many Irish writers of the period, who rejected the literature of England, Joyce was sensitive to the major achievement of the English literary tradition that spanned the eight centuries in which Ireland was under English rule and the accomplishment of William Shakespeare within that tradition. He also cautiously accepted the necessity of writing in the tongue of the conquerors in order to broaden his intellectual perspectives. In his home country, the Irish, persecuted for centuries by the British, were pushing aggressively for independence from British rule. Many fellow Irish writers chose to dramatize this quest for freedom in their work. Joyce, however, was determined to establish himself in the European mainstream, believing that he could not function as an artist in Ireland and that the only suitable response he could make was to be an exile.

Teaching English in Italy. His mother’s serious illness caused his return home in 1903. When he left Ireland permanently in 1904 for Italy, Joyce took with him a young woman, Nora Barnacle. She would remain his companion for the rest of his life on the Continent and they would have two children together, although he refused to marry in a religious ceremony. (They eventually legalized their marriage in a civil ceremony in 1931.) In the decade between 1904 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Joyce and Nora lived principally in Trieste, Italy, where he taught English.

Success in a Shattered World. For James Joyce, the year the world was thrown into turmoil was also the beginning of his success as a writer, with the publication of his short-story collection Dubliners—which examines the middle-class Irish Catholics known to himself and his family—and the completion of his first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), as well as his beginning to work on Ulysses. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is at once a portrayal of the maturation of the artist, a study of the vanity of rebelliousness, and an examination of the self-deception of adolescent ego. It is often considered a study of the author’s early life. As Joyce was writing and finding some appreciative readers, the world around him was falling apart. The Great War, as World War I was initially known, meant that he and his family were now enemy aliens in Italy.

At Work on a Masterpiece. In 1915 the Joyces were granted permission to leave Trieste for neutral Zurich, Switzerland. Soon thereafter, back in Ireland, the Irish Republican Brotherhood staged what became known as the Easter Rising during Easter week of 1916. They seized key Dublin facilities and declared an independent Irish republic, but were put down by British forces after six days of fighting. Three years later, a full-scale guerilla war, known as the Irish War of Independence, broke out, which eventually compelled the British to make some concessions to the Irish and led to the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.

Most of Ulysses (1922), the novel for which Joyce is most enduringly remembered, was written during the war years in Zurich. In 1920, Joyce and his family moved to Paris. Among the expatriate Americans living there between the wars was Sylvia Beach, who published Ulysses under the imprint of her bookstore, Shakespeare and Co. Using Homer’s Odyssey as a framework, Joyce depicts in Ulysses the events of a single day in Dublin—June 16, 1904. Seedy details of urban life caused the novel to be banned from the United States until December 1933, when Judge John M. Woolsey delivered the legal verdict that Ulysses was not obscene; it was published in the United States in early 1934, twelve years after Sylvia Beach’s Paris edition had appeared.

Finnegans Wake and the Dark Years Following. Following the international praise heaped on Ulysses, Joyce gained the financial patronage of heiress-activist- editor Harriet Shaw Weaver and afterward was able to devote himself exclusively to writing. He spent nearly all of his remaining years composing his final work, Finnegans Wake (1939). Meant to be the subconscious flow of thought of H. C. Earwicker, a character both real and allegorical, Finnegans Wake is literally a re-creation of the English language. In this masterpiece of allusions, puns, foreign languages, and word combinations, Joyce attempted to compress all of Western culture into one night’s dream.

Though free from poverty, these years were darkened by the worsening insanity of Joyce’s daughter Lucia and by several surgical attempts to save his own failing eyesight. After the publication of Finnegans Wake in 1939, the year war once more broke out in Europe, Joyce fled Paris and the approaching turmoil of World War II. A stay in the south of France eventually led to the Joyces being admitted into Switzerland again, once Lucia was hospitalized and the rumor that Joyce was a Jew was dismissed. Three weeks after arriving in Zurich in 1941, however, Joyce died on the operating table during surgery on a perforated ulcer.



Joyce's famous contemporaries include:

Georges Braque (1882-1963): Braque was a French artist and cofounder with Pablo Picasso of the cubist movement in painting.

Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916): Boccioni was an Italian artist, who was influential in the futurist artistic movement, which rejected the past and focused on speed and technology.

Mina Loy (1882-1966): Loy was a British artist and writer, as well as a creator of three-dimensional collages. She turned away from futurism toward modernism.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): Stravinsky was a Russian composer who collaborated with ballet choreographers, including Sergei Diaghilevand George Balanchine. He is well-known for his works The Firebird and The Rite of Spring.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941): Woolf was an English author well-known for her modernist novels and a member of the influential Bloomsbury literary group in London.


Works in Literary Context

The Quintessential Modernist. Critics have come to see the year 1922, with the appearance of Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, as the culminating moment of modernism. Although James Joyce avoided association with artistic groups or literary movements, the characteristics distinguishing his works— dislike of institutions devoted to preserving the status quo, faith in the humanity of individuals, and a deep interest in stylistic experimentation—reflect the concerns animating the works of all the major artists of the period. He is, and was even for many readers of his own moment, the quintessential modernist.

An Irish Home Seen from—and as—“Away”. A striking characteristic of Joyce’s different novels and short stories is their near-obsession with Dublin, perhaps the more striking given Joyce’s own long expatriation. In dealing with a world fractured by WWI and then the onset of the WWII, Joyce certainly could have been forgiven for seeking comfort in memories of childhood and home—if that were what he had done. Instead, Joyce’s returns to Dublin are famously unsentimental, even mocking, and his depictions of his own family are outright cruel at times. In a sense, he looks back to Dublin and a home life there not as ‘‘home,’’ a place of familiarity and comfort, but as ‘‘away,’’ a place that may be clearly, even coldly, seen in a more or less objective light. Perhaps, though, it is Irish culture that has the last laugh here, since the ironic portrayals of Dublin and of family life that strike some readers as cold or cruel are, after all, representatives of a grand Irish tradition of sharp- tongued, even ferocious self-mockery.

Joyce’s influence has been immense. Elements within the styles of authors as different from one another as Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett, modern American novelist William Faulkner, English fiction writers Malcolm Lowry and John Fowles, and contemporary American novelists Thomas Pynchon and John Irving identify them as some of those most overtly shaped by Joyce’s works. But no author today can begin to compose without confronting in some way the impact on modern literature exerted by Joyce’s new methods of composition, and, consequently, no reader today can take up a work of modern fiction without feeling the effects and echoes of Joyce’s influence.



According to Marvin Magalaner's Time of Apprenticeship, James Joyce explained his choice of setting to his friend, Arthur Power: ''For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.'' Here are some other works in which a specific city plays an important, universally revealing, role.

City of God (2002), a film directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund. This Academy Award-nominated movie follows a boy growing up in a slum of Rio de Janiero, Brazil; it is based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Paolo Lins.

Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), a novel by George Orwell. This debut novel is heavily autobiographical, chronicling an artistic life lived in poverty in two great European cities.

Palace Walk (1988), a novel by Naguib Mahfouz. The first story in the ''Cairo Trilogy'' by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, this novel examines the life of a middle-class family in Cairo just after World War I.

A Private Life (2004), a novel by Ran Chen. Written by one of China's leading female authors, this coming-of-age novel traces a girl's maturation in Beijing during the 1980s and 1990s.

Tales of the City (1976), a novel by Armistead Maupin. This novel, originally published as a newspaper serial, tells the story of a group of neighbors in San Francisco, with its thriving alternative culture.


Works in Critical Context

Few writers have as secure a claim to be the major figure of the modernist period in literary history as James Joyce does. Richard Ellmann summarizes the author’s impact on twentieth-century letters: ‘‘We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries, to understand our interpreter.’’ Critics are unanimous in their praise for Joyce’s artistry while acknowledging the difficulty of his works. Eloise Knowlton comments about Dubliners: ‘‘The stories ... take a coldly objective, scrupulously true view of their objects, accomplish a vivid and swift capturing of a single, seemingly accidental moment, and lack an explanatory authorial voice (a caption) that might pin down a specific meaning: a lack that perpetually frustrates students who expect a definite, readable meaning to a tale.’’ Similarly, Keith Cushman writes about Ulysses: ‘‘It is odd that a novel with such a reputation for consummate artistic design should also be universally recognized to be formally problematic. Every serious reader of Ulysses must grapple with the apparent divergence of matter and manner, of surface and symbol.... Our image of Joyce almost requires that we equip Ulysses with a grand design, but any such design is apt to leave out the sheer exuberant messiness of the novel.’’

Ulysses. Responses to Ulysses have been as varied as the different facets of the novel itself, although the antihero figure of Leopold Bloom is so universally beloved that a day named for him (June 16) is celebrated by Joyce enthusiasts around the world (and especially in Dublin, Ireland, where the novel takes place): Bloomsday. Attempting to trace Joyce’s effects on the development of a ‘‘world modernism,’’ literary critic Cesar Augusto Salgado notes several ‘‘central Joycean themes—the interplay between the Homeric and the Orphic, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, death and resurrection.’’ Salgado also describes Ulysses as ‘‘an anarchical avant-garde work’’ driven by a ‘‘realist imperative to represent a plurality of characters with technical conciseness by filtering their representation and characterization through their own language.’’

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. David Daiches argues that in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ‘‘Joyce ... has given us one of the few examples in English literature of autobiography successfully employed as a mode of fiction. As autobiography, the work has an almost terrifying honesty; as fiction, it has unity, consistency, probability, and all the other aesthetic qualities we look for in a work of art.... A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is perhaps the most flawless of all Joyce’s work. The welding of form and content, the choice of detail that seems inevitable once it has been made, the brilliant yet unobtrusive style, these and other qualities give the work a wholeness, a unity, and a completeness possessed by hardly a handful of works in our literature.’’ Looking back at initial responses to the piece, literary scholar Brandon Kershner suggests that in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ‘‘Joyce’s technique was so convincing that the [early] reviewers had to admit that something beyond conventional realism was at work.’’


Responses to Literature

1. Joyce wrote about Ireland and the Irish, although he lived abroad for almost all his adult life. What stylistic features of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man do you think can be attributed to this expatriation? That is, how did being outside of Ireland affect the way Joyce saw and wrote about his native land? Explore a thesis through detailed analysis of concrete passages in Joyce’s text.

2. Ulysses is famously patterned on Homer’s Odyssey, replacing the ancient Greek hero of that epic poem with a modern antihero. Research the emergence of the ‘‘antihero’’ in literature, and suggest several reasons why that figure may have emerged and gained popularity when it did. What are some possible cultural impacts of an embrace of the antihero?

3. James Joyce decided to write in English at a time when many Irish writers chose to write in Gaelic instead. Write an essay analyzing his reasons for writing in English, seen by many Irish of the period as the language of the colonizer.

4. Many readers see Ulysses as the epitome of modernist style. What ways of seeing the world are reflected in the emergence of this style, and how does this manner of experiencing reality differ from that associated with modernism’s literary predecessors? Explore a thesis through detailed analysis of concrete passages in Joyce’s text.




Beeretz, Sylvia. Tell Us in Plain Words: Narrative Strategies in James Joyce’s ‘‘Ulysses’’ New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

Benstock, Bernard, ed. Critical Essays on James Joyce. New York: G. K. Hall, 1985.

Corcoran, Neil. After Yeats and Joyce: Reading Modern Irish Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Daiches, David. ‘‘ Ulysses and Finnegans Wake: The Aesthetic Problem.’’ In The Novel and the Modern- World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Fargnoli, A. Nicholas, and Michael Patrick Gillespie. James Joyce A to Z: The Essential Reference to the Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1995.

McCourt, John. James Joyce: A Passionate Exile. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2001.

Nolan, Emer. James Joyce and Nationalism. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Quick, Jonathan. Modern Fiction and the Art of Subversion. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

Riquelme, John Paul. Teller and Tale in Joyce’s Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Salgado, Cesar Augusto. From Modernism to Neobaroque: Joyce and Lezama Lima. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2000.

Tindall, William York. A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce. New York: Noonday, 1959.

Vanderham, Paul. James Joyce and Censorship: The Trials of ‘‘Ulysses’’. New York: New York University Press, 1998.


Cushman, Keith. Review of The Book as World: James Joyce’s “Ulysses’’. Modern Philology 76 (1979): 435-38.

Knowlton, Eloise. ‘‘Showings Forth: Dubliners, Photography, and the Rejection of Realism.’’ Mosaic 38 (2005): 133.

Web Sites

The International James Joyce Foundation. Ohio State University, Department of English. Retrieved April 24, 2008, from http://english.osu.edu/research/organizations/ijjf.

The James Joyce Centre. Retrieved April 24, 2008, from http://www.jamesjoyce.ie.

The James Joyce Society. Retrieved April 24, 2008, from http://joycesociety.org.

Sunphone Records. Music in the Works of James Joyce. Retrieved April 24, 2008 from http://www.james-joyce-music.com.